Sept. 11, 2001 archives: Facing the future from Ground Zero

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, only a few members of the then-People’s Weekly World staff were in the lower Manhattan editorial office when the airplanes hit the Twin Towers at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. They worked under extraordinary conditions to meet the Wednesday deadline and produce a newspaper that week. It was a four-page edition that contained a statement from the Communist Party USA condemning the terrorist attacks, and praising the first-responders and their heroism. Despite attempts to locate that issue, it is lost to history, a much lesser victim of the aftermath of 9/11.

 In the following People’s Weekly World editions, reporters worked to gather responses to the crisis by the people who rushed to help at New York City’s Ground Zero, as well as at the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa. Many of the people interviewed urged a firm response to the culprits behind the terrorist attacks, but not for the “war on terror” advocated by the Bush administration. republishes these stories here as part of commemorating the 10th anniversary of that tragic day.

NEW YORK CITY – In moments of natural disaster people come together to respond. Yet the destruction of the World Trade Center (WTC) is not a natural disaster, like a tornado or earthquake. It is a political disaster, an international disaster, a human tragedy that moves people to respond. Many are worried about where humanity will go from here.

“I live in Brooklyn Heights and saw the whole thing. It was horrible,” said Dina, a volunteer at the Armory at 26th Street and Lexington Ave., where the families of the missing are gathering.

“I had to come in and help. I want to try to do some translation work. I speak Spanish. There’s a lot of Spanish-speaking people there but they could use some French, Italian and Filipino translators because there are all nationalities.”

Around the city, flags are flying from windows, in storefronts, on cabs and trucks. U.S. flags are flying side by side with Puerto Rican, Mexican and Irish flags.

On street corners and doorsteps in neighborhoods around Manhattan burning candles stand as small monuments to hope and peace. Tens of thousands have participated in candlelight vigils. It’s a city coming to terms with one of the most horrific events in U.S. history.

The crowds that gather at “command central” at the Jacob Javits Center are Latino, Black and white, Arab, Asian and American Indian, immigrants and citizens. Many are skilled workers wearing T-shirts of the Electrical workers, Ironworkers or Laborers unions. They have the skills to excavate the ruins of the WTC.

Firefighters, police emergency technicians, doctors and nurses are also there. Many are young, looking for a way to share the burden of this atrocity by doing the small tasks of handling donated supplies and cooking food. All volunteers are wearing pieces of tape as makeshift name tags. There is a sense of community here.

Bucket brigades of 20-30 people move shovels, socks, bottled water and paper towels into piles. Bags of dog food are a reminder of the continuing hope that search dogs will find survivors under the rubble.

Workers in hardhats stand in the middle of the West Side Highway directing the traffic of trucks and heavy equipment. Food and drink are being served up and down the sidewalks to the thousands of volunteers.

“I’m an electrician – jack of all trades, master of none – like everybody else,” said Lee, a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 from Queens. “We’re just here to help and do whatever we can. Move rubble and whatever else they need us to do. It’s a little frustrating …”

“My friend James has been down there for three days. It’s ugly, it’s like a war, just be prepared,” he continued. “You gotta go down there to save some people you hope.”

“This is the most horrendous thing I’ve seen in my life, just unnecessary carnage and pain,” said Barry, a laborer from Manhattan.

“We’ve got to stop passing the pain around. We’ve got a history full of this. All throughout time,” he said.

“We don’t have to wait around for the next species of man to show up, we can do it now! Really! Same old stuff, different century.”

“Yesterday, [seeing] the fire trucks come by here with the firemen in them, people were applauding and screaming and waving the flags … My skin just got goose bumps,” Jimmy, a laborer from Elizabeth, N.J., said.

“The firemen were just covered with ash,” Jimmy continued. “And you had firemen from Michigan, and everywhere … they couldn’t fly, so they drove. People from Oklahoma, California, all ethnic backgrounds – not one problem. If anything, it’s been very uplifting, to help bring back some solidarity to this country.” (Story continues after slideshow.)

The sense of urgency and frustration about whether they get to use their skills to help could be seen on their faces as they anxiously wait for their name to be called for assignments at Ground Zero. Many have set aside their own lives and made tremendous sacrifices to fight for the chance to save lives.

“You can’t even talk about it, it’s bad,” one of the millwrights told us as he walked away, head down and covered in soot. “You don’t see half of it on the news.”

Urban search and rescue teams have come from 15 countries. Teams have also come from places like Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. One of them was Wendell, who had organized an American Indian team made up of police officers, EMTs and firefighters.

“We had a big disaster down in our town a couple of years ago. A lot of people came to help out from different areas, so we decided to give something back … People are willing to help out any way they can with this,” Wendell said.

“None of this racism and stuff should be going on. Look how much people are helping each other,” he said. “Nobody even cares what color you are anymore when something like this happens.”

People of all races and nationalities were in the WTC when the planes hit. Some 700 Arabs are believed to be among the missing, according to some reports.

“My biggest fear … is all the ethnic attacks on the Muslim community and also the southeast Asian community … it’s a tragedy what’s happened in the World Trade Center, but this could escalate [into] other incidents of human rights violations,” said one volunteer from New York City.

The most important message for the American government to give its people “is that we need to stand strong and unite,” another worker said.

The world and our country will never be the same. As each day passes, new thinking about the whys and hows will emerge. The volunteers’ dramatic response will be recorded, especially as a part of a massive upsurge of social action, which is the essence of democracy and empowerment.

A week after the attack, many of the skilled volunteer workers were being utilized as support personnel as larger heavy equipment construction companies with union employees are brought into the search and rescue area. The disaster is far from over, with more than 5,000 still missing and presumed dead, but life in Manhattan is struggling towards normalcy.

The New York Times interviewed CEOs to capture what they termed “their wisdom” on how to handle this catastrophic event. It reported, “Four basic truisms: be calm, tell the truth, put people before business, then get back to business as soon as possible.”

The volunteers shared their wisdom with the World this week. Their basic truisms: Unity and solidarity can make us stronger. Mourning is not a cry for vengeance. Together we have to find a way out of the crisis. The Ground Zero solidarity can be turned toward the problems we will face in the days to come.

“The president said we’re at war now. We don’t want to become the people that we’re dealing with now,” said Nancy, who was holding a sign of appreciation for the Ground Zero crew.

A student from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. said, “Yes, we believe that justice should be served, but you can’t shed innocent blood because if we do, we become just like them. And if we become like them, then they are the ones that win.”

Hector, a laborer from the Bronx, said, “Well, if I had the power, first [I’d] find out who did it and have sanctions against them – not go and bomb – because innocent people are going to die. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Photo: New Yorkers light candles for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. (Israel Smith/PW)

This story was first digitally published Sept. 8, 2011; it was updated and redated on Sept. 11, 2013.



Judith Le Blanc
Judith Le Blanc

Judith Le Blanc is a citizen of the Caddo Nation. She is Executive Director, Native Organizers Alliance. She was awarded a 2022 Resident Fellow at the Harvard Institute of  Politics. Le Blanc was formerly a reporter for the People's Weekly World, the forerunner of the People's World. She has written extensively on her travels to Japan, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon, and was an eyewitness reporter on the 9-11 attacks and their aftermath in New York City.